rightThese days Chinese women are crazy about cosmetics. It seems they can't get enough of them, spending an average of 10 to 15 percent of their income on cosmetics and skin care. Urban women use an average of 2.2 products every morning. Growth rates for the cosmetic industry are in the double digits. In the Mao era, women either wore no make-up or wore cheap, thick make up that covered up their nice skin. Some women rubbed their lips with sandpaper to create the illusion they were wearing lipstick. Even today most Chinese women over 45 have never used mascara.

Make up is used by mainly young woman. Women have traditionally been taught about make up by their mothers or grandmothers but these days many older women grew up when wearing make up was discouraged. One survey found that only 3 percent of women over 45 wear lipstick, compared to 50 percent in Europe. There are still many people who link wearing make up up with prostitution and bad girls.

Chinese women prefer skin care and beauty products, favor neutral colors, eschew make up or hair styles regarded as aggressive and are not big on perfumes. According to research by L’Oreal women in China are concerned about the radiance of their skin and prefer nourishing lotions that protect their skin from the skin-drying winters. L’Oreal researchers also found that Chinese women are concerned about ingesting lipstick. On researcher told the Times of London, “It is the only region of the world where we have found this food attitude. So we took it into account and developed lipsticks containing vitamins. As soon as we told women there was something healthy in the lipstick, they felt more comfortable.”

There are between 3,500 and 4,000 cosmetic manufacturers in China. The retail trade revenue of cosmetics in China grew from US$ 11.5 billion in 2009 to more than $53 billion in 2020. More than half of cosmetics retail sales will be from e-commerce channels by 2024.The value of the Chinese cosmetic industry was estimated to be somewhere between $4.5 billion and $6 billion in 2004 and surpassed $10 billion in 2007. As of 2005, skin products accounted for about 60 percent of sales, make up 30 percent and fragrance 10 percent. The Natural Beauty Group, a company that specializes in making cosmetics for Chinese women, was set up in the early 1990s by the Taiwanese entrepreneur Tsai Yen-ping. By 2001, it had more than 1,000 stores and 10,000 employees.

In China, Wal-Mart sells moisturizers made with sheep placenta which is purported to reduce wrinkles; spas offer seaweed wraps; and breast implants have names like Magic Peach and Dream Xcell. Leslie Patton and Lauren Coleman-Lochner of Bloomberg wrote: “China, where skin-care products are in particular demand, is an important yet challenging market for many Western beauty companies. In October 2013, L’Oreal SA called China’s market “slowing, although still dynamic” and said sales in the quarter grew 11 percent there. P&G said in May 2013 it’s been losing market-share in skin and oral care in China. Avon Products Inc. said in October 2013 that possible fines related to foreign bribery probes in China and elsewhere may materially hurt profit.” [Source: Leslie Patton and Lauren Coleman-Lochner, Bloomberg, December 31, 2013]

Dangerous Cosmetics in China

Some skin whitening cosmetics cost as much as $385 for a 50-milliliter bottle. Health experts warn women to be on their guard because some use mercury and lead — both very toxic substances — as whitening agents. Mercury blocks an enzyme that is necessary for the formation of melanin, the dark pigment in our skin, but exposure to mercury can affect the central nervous system and cause brain or kidney damage. Even products that claim to be mercury free are sometimes full of mercury when they are examined in a laboratory

Nine SKII products made by Proctor and Gamble were found to contain chromium and neodymium — two metals whose use in cosmetics is banned in China. Chromium is carcinogenic and can cause eczema. Neodymium is used in magnets and can cause eye and skin irritation.

A woman in the Anhui Province of Central China nearly died when she was attacked by thousands of bees that were attracted to her facial creme.

Foreign Cosmetics Companies in China

In the 2000s even though only 500 of the 3,500 cosmetics manufacturers in China were foreign owned they control an 80 percent share of the market. L’Oreal of France, Procter and Gamble and Avon of the United States, Shiseido of Japan all have large market shares in China and are all enjoying healthy growth in China. Chanel and Christian Dior are also doing well. Proctor & Gamble arrived in China in 1988 through a joint venture with the Hong Kong-based company Hutchinson Whampoa.

Avon was the No. 2 cosmetic seller in China. It sold $157 million worth of products in 2003 and was expected to sell $500 million by 2007. Avon has had to be flexible to prosper. It began by using its traditional direct selling strategy but when door-to-door sales were banned in 1998 because of concerns about pyramid schemes, Avon became a retailer. As of 2004, there 6,000 Avon Beauty Boutiques in China, many of them run by former door-to-door saleswomen. Avon is strong outside the major urban areas. Mary Kay has over 200,000 women selling cosmetics in China and has posted sales increases of 20 percent a year. In China the company is regarded as a premium brand.

The Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido is marketing their products aggressively in China. Shiseido produces Urara which is only available in China and Za brands which are sold throughout Asia. Shiseido entered China in 1981, making it one of the first cosmetics company to enter the Chinese market. It had ¥60 billion in sales and 2,500 retailers in 2007. Shiseido has two factories: one in Shanghai and one in Beijing.. In November 2005, it opened a large research facility outside Beijing. Researchers plan to examine skin and hair from women all over China and develop products to best suit local lifestyles and weather. In 2007, Shiseido doubled the production capacity size of the plant in Shanghai to keep up with demand.

In December 2013, the cosmetic-maker Revlon announced it would cease operations in China and eliminate about 1,100 positions, including 940 beauty advisers, as it restructures its struggling business. Leslie Patton and Lauren Coleman-Lochner of Bloomberg wrote: China makes up about 2 percent of Revlon’s net sales, and the restructuring will result in about $22 million of pretax charges, the New York-based company said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The changes are expected to reduce costs by about $11 million a year, Revlon said. The company, which posted profit declines in 2011 and 2012, has been making acquisitions and introducing new products as sales in some of its larger brands slow.“Revlon was unable to gain scale and relevance in the important Chinese beauty market,” Connie Maneaty, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets in New York, wrote in a note. [Source: Leslie Patton and Lauren Coleman-Lochner, Bloomberg, December 31, 2013]

L’Oreal in China

Paris-based L’Oréal, the world’s leading cosmetics company, entered China in 1996 and is now the No. 1 cosmetics seller in China. In 2006, it earned $500 million, up from $207 million in 2003, which in turn was an increase of 69 percent from the previous year. L’Oreal marketed 16 brands in China in the 2000s, including Maybelline, L'Oreal Paris, Lacome and Shu Uemura. L’Oreal’s marketing director in China told the International Herald Tribune, “Our strategy is to be everywhere." Maybelline is sold in 12,873 stores in 646 Chinese cities. In 2006, L’oreal purchased Mininurse, which is distributed in 250,000 outlets.

In September 2006 L’Oreal opened a research center in Shanghai. Researchers there study things like the way women wash their face and apply cosmetics and the diameter of their hair follicles. To develop cosmetics and hair care products designed especially for Chinese women the company is assembling “atlases” of Chinese women’s skin.

In January 2014, L’Oréal acquired Magic Holdings for$840 million. Magic Holdings is China’s largest facial-mask company. It makes the Magic Snail Cream Firming Hydrating Mask, which is good restoring moisture during Beijing’s long dry winters, and the Berry Brightening Facial Mask, which is supposed to lighten the skin and helo wearers achieve the porcelain-doll complexion favored in parts of northern China. L’Oréal said: “Facial masks are one of China’s beauty market’s fastest-growing areas, with very promising development prospects.” [Source: Christina Larson, Bloomberg, January 17, 2014]

Cosmetics for Men in China

The market for men's cosmetics in China is growing very fast. Among the items for sale are skin lotions, whitening agents, face cleansing cream, deodorant spray, mud masks and anti-aging beauty creams made especially for them.

The Natural Beauty Run is a spa in Shanghai exclusively for males that features massages, “essential oil” treatments, facials and saunas with piped in music. Among its products are Body Firming Creams and Bio for Man Intensive Cleansing Milk, which, according its label “removes abnormal and dead cells without a tight feeling, yet softens the horny layer.” [Source: Peter Goodman, Washington Post, August 2003]

Shiseido offers the Handsome Man line of products, which includes mousse, cologne, skin moisturizers, facial cleaning lotions and scented antiperspirant lotion. Cosmetics companies have found that products for men sell best when the are sold with women’s cosmetics. Marketing researchers have found that men often are too embarrassed to buy the products themselves but will use them if their wives or girlfriends buy them for them.

One influencer told the The New Yorker he regularly spent eight-hour stretches at his computer. To fill the time, he said, “I put on makeup, or, if my makeup is already done, I sing karaoke, but I don’t have a good voice.” Jiayang Fan wrote: I asked if a lot of men use makeup. “Increasingly, yes,” Abner answered. “But of course not everyone does as elaborate a job as me. My situation is a bit special because of all my plastic surgery.” He’d begun reshaping his face when he was fifteen, having become fascinated by the way he could change his face with Meitu’s apps. “They opened up this world where I could literally invent what I looked like,” he said. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, December 18, 2017]

Korean Cosmetics in China

Joyce Lee of Reuters wrote: In 2015, South Korea year overtook the United States and Japan to become the No. 2 cosmetics exporter to China after France. It shipped $1.1 billion worth of skincare creams, facial masks, compacts and other cosmetic products to the world's second-largest economy, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. South Korea's total cosmetics exports were worth $2.59 billion, up 44 percent from 2014, with Hong Kong and the United States its second- and third-biggest markets, a long way behind China. Sales are boosted by South Korea's duty-free market — the world's biggest — which caters especially to big-spending Chinese tourists. Cosmetics accounted for nearly half of the country's record duty-free revenue of 5.8 trillion won ($5.1 billion) in the first half of this year, customs data showed. “The trade is not without its downside. To counter unofficial re-sales, Korea's Customs Service is considering setting a 50 product limit for duty-free buyers, a customs official said. Analysts say this could dent sales by smaller firms, but note that bigger companies already limit duty-free purchases to control store inventory.”[Source: Joyce Lee, Reuters, Aug 3, 2016]

“For foreign investors, buying into the Korean success story is a convenient way also into China, where locals can't get enough of Korean TV dramas and K-Pop music. "We find beauty and media-entertainment sectors to be the most exciting (in Korea), " said Ravi Thakran, the chairman and managing partner at L Capital Asia, a unit of LVMH, which last month became a major shareholder in South Korean colour cosmetics brand CLIO. "The popularity of Korean culture such as K-Pop, dramas and celebrities boosted significant demand for Korean beauty products in China and other Southeast Asian countries, " he added.

Beyond China, Korean cosmetics have also moved into chains including LVMH's Sephora, Target and Urban Outfitters, according to Korea's state-run trade agency KOTRA. The LVMH unit's investment in CLIO came just weeks after Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital Private Equity said they were buying a majority stake in unlisted cosmetics maker Carver Korea Co Ltd.

Peter Shadbolt of CNN wrote: “The cosmetics section of any department store anywhere in the world might usually be the first thing you encounter when you walk through the door, but in China it's often a mirror maze on a vast and dazzling scale. There are serried ranks of demonstrations as shop assistants jostle for attention armed with French moisturizers, South Korean all-in-one BB creams and Japanese lip glosses and violet eye shadows. If department stores in Asia are the battle ground for its emerging middle classes, then the cosmetics counter is its front line. [Source: Peter Shadbolt, for CNN, November 6, 2014]

“In China, cosmetics now outstrips groceries as the biggest selling item in its department stores, according to a report from Fung Business Intelligence Center. In 2013, Chinese women, and increasingly men, spent 162.5 billion yuan ($26 billion) on cosmetics in an industry that showed 13.3 percent growth year-on-year, according to the same report citing figures from Euromonitor International. Japan's annual beauty and personal care market is still the largest in the region at about $50 billion, second in the world only to the United States (which is about $70 billion), according to Euromonitor International. But China's 150 million-strong middle class is closing the gap fast.

“For them, however, ground zero in terms of models of beauty is increasingly South Korea. While South Korea's domestic market is only a third the size of China, in terms of soft power the country punches well above its weight thanks to Asia's insatiable appetite for Korean drama series and their stars. China's middle class is expected to grow to 500 million within a decade. By 2030 around one billion people in China could be middle class — as much as 70 percent of its projected population, according to a report from EY. In terms of brands, according to Euromonitor, L'Oréal China continued to hold the leading position in the Chinese cosmetics market in 2013 with a value share of 34 percent.

China Bans Imports of Korean Cosmetics To Retaliate Against Missiles

In 2017, China blocked some Korean cosmetics imports but analysts said it would have little affect the demand. By Yoon Ja-young wrote in the South China Morning Post: “China banned imports of 19 Korean cosmetics products amid rising tensions over Korea’s decision to allow the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery here. According to Yonhap News Agency, Chinese authorities have recently refused to approve imports of 11 tonnes of cosmetics. Beijing announced that 28 cosmetics products failed to win approval for import, and among them 19 were Korean. It includes shampoo by CJ Lion, body wash products by Aekyung, lotion and other cosmetics by Iaso, and mask packs from by some mid-sized producers. The authorities cited diverse reasons such as changes in ingredients. [Source: By Yoon Ja-young, South China Morning Post, January 11, 2017]

“The rejection is regarded as part of economic retaliation by China, which includes bans on K-pop and K-drama stars and airliners’ chartered flights between the two countries ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. Korea and the United States chose to install THAAD in South Korea amid increasing threats from North Korea, but China has been claiming that the system would threaten its security.

“Korean cosmetics, which are popular among Chinese consumers, were feared to be the next target. China’s state-run Global Times also issued threats over THAAD. “Department stores in Seoul may be popular among Chinese tourists, however, these tourists haven’t forgotten their identity. Chinese people have a clear mind about the situation on the Korean Peninsula and will not sacrifice the national interest for Korean cosmetics if Seoul chooses to side with the U.S, ” it said in its Jan. 7 edition.

Cosmetics shares have been falling amid the increasing tension. AmorePacific’s stock has lost around 60 percent in value since July 2016 when Korea and the United States announced plans to install the U.S. missile system. Kolmar Korea also fell to its lowest level in a year. “The issue of THAAD is likely to be overcome within a year. It isn’t very likely that Korean brands’ market share will fall in China’s cosmetics market due to it, ” said Park Jong-dae, an analyst at Hana Financial Investment. “China’s import market is expanding rapidly as Chinese seek premium products, and Korean brands make up over 30 per cent. The retaliation is focusing on curtailing supply, and it isn’t likely to fundamentally affect demand, ” he noted.

K-Pop and K-Drama Stars Help Move Korean Beauty Products in China

Peter Shadbolt of CNN wrote: “Thanks to the popularity of K-pop and Korean soap operas — whose stars such as Song Hye-kyo and Kim Hyun-joong and Yoona of Girls' Generation are household names in the Asia-Pacific region — Korean beauty brands are now the hottest ticket item in China. One Korean brand in particular, Laneige (meaning the "the snow" in French) and made by South Korea's AmorePacific Corp, is popular among China's middle classes. With its blue and white design and French cachet, the skincare product benefits from the soft power of being South Korean and, more importantly, cheaper. [Source: Peter Shadbolt, for CNN, November 6, 2014]

Vivienne Rudd, director of global innovation at market researcher Mintel, said South Korean beauty and personal care retail market posted 5.8 percent growth year-on-year to 2013 compared with just 2.1 percent for the UK and 3.9 percent for the US. "The success of South Korean brands has a lot to do with Chinese consumers copying the style of South Korean soap opera and music stars, " Rudd told CNN. "They'll even go so far as to get the particular products being used by these stars. The stores will try to get in the exact shades that South Korean actresses are using."

“Increasingly, South Korea is setting the standard for the growing market in skincare products, creating the all-in-one BB creams — which contain tints, moisturizer and even sunblock — that have become so popular in Asia. "South Korea is really the hot market for innovation and it's even overtaken markets like Japan as the place where everyone looks for the experts in skincare. The Chinese are fascinated by facial skincare and by face color cosmetics, " Rudd said. "South Korean women are very much held up as the standard of beauty across Asia."

Despite the coverage that South Korean brands have received recently, it is still brands from Europe and the U.S. that rule the roost in China. "Western brands such as L'Oreal still have the brand recognition in China, " Rudd said, adding that because South Korean brands have been slowing recently, they have been marketing more aggressively in the Chinese market with products aimed directly at Chinese consumers.Apart from creating brands that build on the idea that South Korea has a special expertise in terms of Asia beauty, South Korean cosmetics are seen as lighter and more fun than their Western counterparts. "They are very quick to use catchy new ingredients, thick textures and they're very careful with their pricing, " she said. In the meantime, however, Chinese brands have not been slow to sell in their own markets with brands such as Shanghai Jahwa emerging as a major competitor to Western brands, especially third and fourth-tier cities in China. "There's a certain cachet with French brands, however, and it's amusing to see Chinese brands creating names in Chinese that, when pronounced phonetically, sound very much like French names, " Rudd said.

Jewelry in Chinat

Ancient Asian burial sites have yielded hairpins of bone, iron, bronze, silver and gold. In the old days many women favored gold jewelry because it was like an insurance policy that could be melted down for quick cash. These days women are buying more gemstones based on fashion and design. Unlike the United States where 80 percent of diamond jewelry purchases are made as gifts for someone else, many Chinese, especially women, like to buy jewelry for themselves.

For the past decade or so diamonds have been the gem favored by women who could afford them. Diamonds are still widely sought after for weddings and other traditional events. De Beers has run ads since the 1990s pushing the idea that no bride is complete without a diamond ring. These days many Chinese women are purchasing rubies, sapphires and other colored stones to express their individuality.

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times: “Of all stops along the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle, the Year of the Dragon has the clearest economic effects. The Chinese marry more and bear more children in a "lucky" dragon year: in a frenetically gift-giving culture growing wealthier all the time, 20 million births and 12 million marriages will translate directly into big sales of gold. Moreover, other demographic and economic developments are even more important. "Women's labour participation in China is increasing above 60 per cent and many are supporting their families,” Adrian Cheng of Chow Tai Fook says. “That participation is growing and these women have more spending power." [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, January 23, 2012]

And while crowds from the mainland may hit Hong Kong's shopping malls like starving locusts, Mr Cheng believes that they are doing so with a sharper eye than the tills alone suggest. In Mr Cheng's view, the hunger for luxury goods by China is a quest for authenticity. "Chinese women are turning to diamonds for many complicated reasons. Unlike an iPhone, which they buy knowing it will be out of date in six months' time, with jewellery they are looking for something that represents investment and value. These women are sophisticated, educated and have travelled. They know what investment is and they know how to buy in a way that preserves value. Diamonds for Chinese women are also a symbol of status. It is giving face. When you wear a diamond - one, two or three carat - it immediately translates as status in front of your peers, clients and stakeholders."

Aside from China's young working women, Mr Cheng wants to direct his stores towards two other types of customer. One is the generation of men now buying jewellery for its women - unsurprisingly, the transactions are extremely rapid and based on raw price over aesthetics. On occasions when men come in to Chow Tai Fook stores accompanied by women, staff are trained to be discreet on the issue of whether it is a wife or mistress.

The other rapidly growing category is the generation that lived through the worst decades of Chinese history and is now in its fifties - yearning to buy the wedding rings, engagement rings and other jewellery they could never dare to want as Mao's Cultural Revolution raged. "These are people who dress very conservatively and buy big carats,” Mr Cheng says.

The same market that can be enchanted by a logo on the back of a grimy bus is developing a Japanese-style obsession with cuteness. One new product that Mr Cheng believes could become a favourite in the company gift-giving circuit is a solid gold Winnie the Pooh. He fought hard to gain the rights from Disney and has Mickey and Minnie firmly in his sights as Shanghai begins work on mainland China's first Disneyland. "The problem is that not all Disney characters are really cute,” he points out. “I mean, you can't really have the Little Mermaid. Would we look at Hello Kitty? Probably."

Chow Tai Fook, the World's Biggest Unknown Jewellery Brand

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times: “Chow Tai Fook is a brand more hotly desired by 1.3 billion Chinese than Armani, Hermes, Prada and Rolex. According to the Chow Tai Fook heir Adrian Cheng, Westerners don't understand China. Nor Chinese tourists and especially not Chinese women. "We do," he says. "My family is genetically good at understanding women." If that boast is correct, China's young women are about to become some of the world's biggest buyers of diamonds, treating themselves as their wealth grows. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, January 23, 2012]

In late 2011, “the company, the largest jewellery retailer in the world by many measures, listed 10 per cent of the family's stock on the local market, raising about $US2 billion ($1.9 billion). The listing set out to hold the once-private company to more international standards of corporate governance and provide a little more clarity on the succession questions surrounding Chow Tai Fook. Specifically, how the brand, the supply chain and the 1500-outlet retail network in Greater China will be run as the company rumbles towards a third generation of Cheng family control.

The answer, at least in part, appears to lie in Adrian Cheng, the 32-year-old, Harvard-educated grandson of the company’s billionaire chairman Yu-Tung Cheng. The initial public offering, Adrian Cheng tells The Times in his first post-listing interview, was all about establishing "clear and clean divisions" that ultimately should smooth the process of succession and eliminate the squabbles that, for example, swirl around the future of Stanley Ho's Macau gaming empire.

For now, Mr Cheng acts as executive director (his father Henry Cheng remains more senior) and has been put in charge of branding, marketing and e-commerce - pointedly the three critical areas of Chow Tai Fook's growth story as the company swells by 250 new points-of-sale per year in China.

Even by the expansive norms of corporate China, these are big ambitions. The company has a scattering of stores in Asia but 1,500 points of sale in Greater China. Its revenues are 50 per cent bigger than those of Tiffany, the next-largest pure-play jeweller in the world, and eclipse global sales of the jewellery segments of Richemont. Possibly the most disturbing element for foreign observers - once they have overcome the fact that Chow Tai Fook is probably the biggest brand they have never heard of - is that its fame and prospects are entirely a Chinese affair. All of Mr Cheng's plans lie in China's second, third and fourth-tier cities. Many preach the eastward shift of the global economy, but few practice it so purely.

Tattoos and Fingernails in China

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Zhuang minority tattoo

Tattoos are generally frowned upon in China. Athletes that have them are often barred from playing. Some older women have small beauty marks tattooed on their forehead.

Men sometimes have long pinky nails. Mandarins traditionally had long fingernails to show they didn’t do manual work or physical activity. The custom of fingernail painting is believed to have originated in China before 3000 B.C. There is some evidence that varnishes, enamels and lacquers made from gum arabic, egg white, gelatin and beeswax, were applied fingernails in China in ancient times. Documents from the Chou Dynasty, dated to 600 B.C., said gold and silver were the colors for royal fingernails.

In recent years it has become common for Americans — most visibly on pop stars and NBA basketball players who reveal a fair amount of upper body skin — to have Chinese characters tattooed on their arms and shoulders. Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets has one that reads the equivalent of ‘strive to be the best.” He had his made in 1996 and claims to be first NBA player to get a Chinese character tattoo. Larry Hughes of the Cleveland Cavaliers has a character that means “loyalty” emblazoned on a basketball. When a New Jersey Nets guard decided to get a tattoo to commemorate the birth of his son Jeff with a character that read “state of bliss” he checked with Yao Ming to make sure symbols meant what he was told by the tattoo artist they meant.

Other people have not been so careful. Britney Spears got a Chinese character tattoo that she thought said “mysterious” but in reality it read ‘strange.” Marquis Daniels of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks thought his Chinese character tattoo were representations of his name but in actuality they said “healthy woman roof.” There is also a story of one man who got a tattoo thinking it said “one love” only to be informed by a clerk of Chinese decent at a Staples store that it really said “love hurts.”

Few of the American tattoos artists that make the tattoos know Chinese. They simply follow templates often of dubious origin. Hazni Smatter ( ) is a website devoted to humorous tattoos. One tattoo listed on the site read “power piglet.” Another found on a woman’s lower back read “motherly beast blessing.” The Chinese character tattoos craze began in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has it origins in the turn of the 20th century when sailors traveling to Asian ports picked up tattoos, sometimes with Chinese characters on them.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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